Maurice Duruflé (1902–1986) was a Parisian church musician, a renowned virtuoso organ recitalist and a professor at the Paris Conservatoire. The main influences on him were the music of other French composers, like Fauré, Debussy, Ravel, his own teacher Paul Dukas, and Gregorian chant. Duruflé was a slow, meticulous and methodical composer, constantly re-writing and revising, and as a result, there are only a handful of works by him. He published a total of just fourteen, mostly for organ, choir or orchestra. As he once claimed, “I am incapable of adding anything significant to the piano repertoire, view the string quartet with apprehension, and envisage with terror the idea of composing a song after the finished examples of Schubert, Fauré and Debussy.”
The Requiem, Duruflé’s longest and most substantial work, was composed in 1947 at the end of World War II. Like Fauré, Duruflé chose to break away from the operatic and highly dramatic Requiem settings of Berlioz and Verdi. He sought to focus his setting not on visions of hell and damnation but on images of rest and peace. Although the original orchestration calls for large orchestra including triple winds, full brass ensemble, several percussionists, organ and strings, Duruflé’s third and final orchestration (the one heard today) is restrained and subtle rather than heavy-handed.
In each of the movements of the Duruflé Requiem, the Gregorian chant melodies of the burial Mass are skillfully assimilated, sometimes quite prominently, while at other times revealing itself subtly, as the drama unfolds. While Gregorian chant is in its very essence the purest form of music, purged of all human emotion, Duruflé’s sensuous harmonies suffuse every note with feeling. Duruflé explains: “This Requiem is not an ethereal work which sings of detachment from human concerns. It reflects, in the unchanging form of Christian prayer, the anguish of man faced with the mystery of his final end.”
The Requiem begins with the familiar burial chant above the impressionist background of flowing strings. It is followed seamlessly by the “Kyrie eleison,” which employs a contrapuntal style reminiscent of a Renaissance motet. Then the “Domine Jesu Christe” movement develops with the scope of modern opera, leading up to a frenzied, almost “jazzy” rendering of the “Sanctus.”
The center of the Requiem, the “Pie Jesu,” is by far the most intimate and personal moment of the piece, in which the emotions of joys, sorrows, grief and peaceful resignation are all expressed. Following the “Pie Jesu” comes a prayerful, meditative setting of the “Agnus Dei.” Rather than expressing an appeal for clemency, it evokes the serenity of one who is about to die, receiving the Lord for the last time. This is followed by the “Lux Aeterna,” which very clearly summons the imagery of the light of heaven.
The “Libera Me,” with its sudden twists of chaos amid the sounds of the “last trumpets” of Judgment Day, is only a temporary moment of uncertainty before the final rest, as choirs of angels welcome the weary soul to Paradise with the familiar chant melodies of the “In Paradisum.”
We would like to extend a word of gratitude to Marsh Chapel at Boston University for their generosity in loaning the scores and parts, enabling today’s musical offering.
© Ryan Turner